“Refuse to lose.”
This was the mantra of the eighth-grade boys travel team that the players developed over the course of the season, putting it on their team sweatshirts, and repeating it to one another as they got closer and closer to the state championship.
And this weekend, the boys refused to lose, battling back against programs twice their size en route to the state title.
In the quarterfinals on Sunday, Coach Jeremy Light’s squad fended off Auburn (who only had two losses total in their last two seasons) 54-45, and then came back against an undefeated Grafton team in the final to win it 49-40.
According to Coach Light, the boys “came out like gangbusters” on Saturday, winning their two pool games 74-18 and 60-35. In the first game, they scored on their first seven consecutive possessions, which “set the tone” for the weekend, said Light.
“They were [angry],” he explained. The team was coming off of a frustrating semifinal loss to rivals Barnstable in the regional championship the weekend prior, which they had won last year. “We weren’t crisp at regionals… but it fueled them.”
On Saturday night at the hotel, a handful of the players even gave each other mullets, with clippers that one of the boys had sneakily brought with him. It was one of many unprompted acts of unity, determination, and faith the players took throughout the weekend, including huddling up before the state final, and constantly reminding one another of their mantra in crunch time.
It was a long time coming for Coach Light’s team, which had been playing together for several years at that point. Light started the team when Leo Napior, Fletcher Zack, Jackson Munson, Connor Beeson, and his son Jacoby were third graders, and gradually added pieces along the way to form the team they have today.
Everything they had put in the last six years came down to three games on Sunday, but the boys weren’t fazed. “They’ve been there before,” said Coach Light. Last year, as seventh graders, the team won the Cape Cod Youth Basketball League, won the regional tournament, and were runners-up at states, barely losing the final in double-overtime.. It was only their second loss all season.
So against Auburn on Sunday at 1:50 pm, the boys got to work for the last final stretch of their youth, travel ball careers. “It was a back and forth game; they gave us everything we wanted,” said Coach Light. “They wore us out… but the parents were there with orange slices and water.” Next up was Melrose in the semifinals, which Martha’s Vineyard handled 56-38, led by 6’5” Landon Lepine’s 22 points.
Finally, the boys had undefeated Grafton in the championship game. At this point it was 6:30, and Martha’s Vineyard had accumulated a decent crowd. As Light’s team continued to roll, parents informed family members, and more and more Islanders made the trek up to Foxborough to watch.
Light’s squad started out hot, quickly taking a 16-7 lead. But Grafton responded with a 14-point run, taking a five-point lead midway into the game. “I looked up and it was 21-16,” said Light.
In the second half, though, Martha’s Vineyard refused to lose. They gradually chipped away at Grafton’s lead, bringing the game to within two with eight minutes to go. Then, Jacoby Light caught fire, knocking down five straight threes, and Martha’s Vineyard re-took the lead. On the other end, they “clamped down defensively,” with Leo Napior getting some key steals, and bigs Landon Lepine and Connor Beeson protected the boards, fending off Grafton’s pair of 6’5” guys.
“Every possession was critical; it was a battle,” stated Light.
With the lead in the final minutes, Martha’s Vineyard slowed down their sets, and Gabe Murray nailed a three-point dagger. Finally, Beeson tacked on a couple free throw shots to ice the game, “and the celebration started.”
Reflecting on the journey to becoming state champions, Light called the last game a testament to how hard the team’s worked. He also expressed lots of gratitude towards the parents. “It’s such a special group… they’ve made it possible.”
He added that he’s looking forward to seeing his players compete at the high school level. “It’s going to be fun the next few years.”